Monday, 5 March 2012

Anger and frustration over pensions in Brighton

When conference heard all five emergency motions had been ruled out of order, it was obvious there would be trouble.

The 200-odd delegates who'd got down to Brighton following the hugely successful day of strike action in November naturally expected to be able to debate the major subject of the day. So when they were refused, they voted the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) out of order!

Last year it was pay, leading to a stalemate. This year, delegates went further: just one delegate in the two hundred-strong conference voted for a SOC report that excluded all pension motions from the agenda. Just one!

This didn't go down at all well with the Chair, Eleanor Smith, who couldn't hide her annoyance ('do you realise what you're voting for?!') before trying to call the vote on the first SOC report again. Some one explained to her she can't as the vote has already been taken, so the conference was suspended.

A full two hours of back room phone calls and conversations went by before the conference got going again, this time the motions were referred back but the rest of the report approved reluctantly. The vote to refer back the motions on pensions had easy majorities. About 80% of the delegates continued to express anger at being refused the chance to express their distaste with the way this had been handled.

Based on that benchmark, it was easy to see the motions calling for further action on pensions would have likely been passed. All of them called for further action against the pensions changes and to reject settling on the 'principles' or 'heads' of agreement.

Eventually, a tactical shift meant the debate about pensions was proposed during a temporary suspension of standing orders, meaning a debate on the subject but without a vote. Finally, for a full 35 minutes, delegates could now express their anger.

Speaker after speaker derided the current state of play. Some called it a 'sell out', others berated the leadership for not showing a willingness to fight when the members were up for it.

One member summarised the 'rejectionists' frustration: "This is why people leave UNISON. You can't march people up to the top of the hill just to march them down again."

Some emphasised the increase in retirement age, others the move to a career average scheme, still others the need to retain public sector unity and not let the UCU, NUT or PCS go it alone.

Others did express doubt we could muster further support for further strike action but it has to be said they were in a minority.

The only thing missing was a vote to settle the matter.

Chris Tansley was in the Chair for the afternoon. Summing up, he praised the floor for the well mannered, and articulate debate. He promised to have listened carefully and then pledged to take their concerns back to the negotiating team.

It will be interesting to see exactly what comes out of the final offer and soon the members will decide on where to go next. More interesting will be whether the rejectionist unions can muster their members to take further action despite the members feeling abandoned by the bigger unions.

One thing's for sure in my mind: the delegates to HE conference 2012 weren't convinced at all we'd done the right thing by suspending action in January.

What a pity to watch all that momentum we'd built up for 30th November dissipate into the hot air of The Brighton Centre on 2nd March. Members were passionate on the subject, feelings running high. If only that energy could have been unleashed onto the government instead of the union leadership.

Meanwhile, twenty-odd other motions were discussed and passed - almost all of them without real opposition. A motion on lunch arrangements got the battering it was aniticipated, and members were cautious about increasing the use of video conferencing.

The discussion over organising via the Internet, social networking and Twitter was potentially very good, but the frustration of members not being able to tweet about pensions over-shadowed the whole event.

The best thing and the worst thing for me about HE conference 2012 was the Living Wage campaign launch, which the official report online rightly emphasised. The campaign was launched along with the NUS at a lunch time fringe meeting, with photos taken of delegates with our new placards and it was taken up in the national papers.

The best part of that was witnessing a first-time delegate, Tamar Emmanuel, who works in catering at London Met, introduce the composite motion on the Living Wage, having seen the benefits herself.

The worst part was a visitor who was instrumental in winning the Living Wage at London Met being excluded not only from the conference floor but the fringe meeting of that campaign launch.

I'll come back to blog here on some of the other issues in detail later: about a national strategy to fight job cuts; our pay claim; encourging new activists; organising face to face rather than Facebook to Facebook; and yes, on allowing access to UNISON events for women who are nursing babies.

Overall, delegates once again showed we're a force to be reckoned with and it was an honour to be the elected NEC representative of the HE Service Group.

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